Article Title:NZ History: The strange story of Percy Ottywell
Category:Features
Author or Credit:Craig Young
Published on:28th December 2005 - 12:00 pm
Published by:GayNZ.com
Story ID:1053
Text:In the New Zealand Journal of History, Chris Brickell has added to the sparse literature on the lives of New Zealand gay men in the nineteenth century. According to this Otago University gay historian, one Percy Ottywell (22) had been certified and detained under the Lunatics Act 1882 in 1891. According to the father of Leslie Douglas (15), Ottywell was stalking and harrassing his son. After committal, Ottywell spent six months at Seacliff, after he had sought itinerant labour was a recent Scottish middle-class migrant to New Zealand. As noted above, we know far too little about New Zealand gay men of the nineteenth century. Ottywell was a special case, though- usually, if men had sex with men and were caught, they were jailed under the Offences Against the Person Act 1867 and convicted of 'buggery.' Gay social identities and communities arguably arose in Germany and the United Kingdom in the 1860s, as Karl Ulrichs penned the first calls for decriminalisation of homosexuality since the days of Jeremy Bentham. At the same time, nineteenth century psychiatrists began to classify and medically define human sexualities as 'normal' or 'pathological.' So how did Ottywell and New Zealand psychiatrists view Ottywell's interest in other men? One can only admire Chris' thorough consultation of relevant documents from Seacliff at the time, which includes Ottywell's committal papers, interview notes and relevant correspondence. In addition, English, French and German psychiatrists were publishing papers on the 'pathological' nature of male homosexuality in the 1890s, although they didn't have it all their own way. From the documents above, we learn that Ottywell had had a miserable, downwardly mobile time on Otago's Taieri Plains before he got a job with the Anglican Bishop of Dunedin as a groom and coachman, and then returned to the plains as a sole-charge shepherd before he settled down as a Dunedin clerk. At that time, Ottywell got his hands on salacious literature and became fixated on young Leslie Douglas, which apparently led to depression and suicidal thoughts. Actually, the categories were "melancholy" and "mania", which were the precursors of current clinical psychological interpretations of depression and bipolar affective disorder. As one might guess from Victorian sexual preoccupations, Ottywell was asked whether masturbation was involved, as it 'led' to a consequent desire for 'sodomy' and sexual 'excess.' After committal, Ottywell took to tennis, billiards and card games, but wasn't so successful at dancing, smoking or drinking- or librarianship. He initially rejected the idea that his interest in Leslie Douglas was anything other than platonic 'romantic friendship,' but then realised that he had to be seen to be 'rehabilitated.' Thus, Ottywell tentatively emerges as someone who actively renegotiated the terms of 'knowledge' and 'ignorance' about 'homosexuality.' Why the inverted commas above? At the end of the nineteenth century, there may have been no such thing as a coherent gay social identity in European New Zealand settlements. Truby King (Seacliff's medical superintendant) viewed Ottywell as troubled by a transient desire in men that could be 'remedied' through immersion in 'conventional' male gender activities, and Ottywell complied. After he left Seacliff, we read about further itinerant colonial experiences in Cape Town (1898) and Melbourne (1908), but nothing further about whether Ottywell was still interested in men. Chris has made a noteworthy introduction to the scrappy literature on our 'gay' forebears, and one looks forward to reading his future historical work on these subjects. Source: Chris Brickell: "Same Sex Desire and the Asylum: A Colonial Experience" New Zealand Journal of History: 39: 2: Oct. 2005: 158-178 Craig Young - 28th December 2005    
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